EU regulation threatens Scottish tradition

According to a Scottish MEP the kiltmaking industry in Scotland could suffer because nobody can agree what a kilt is!

Alyn Smith MEP said that “Defining what a Scottish Kilt is and then protecting that designation has never been more important for the Scottish Textile industry.”

Alyn Smith MEP
Alyn Smith MEP

An Economic Impact Study by the Scottish Government has shown that the tartan industry contributes some £350 million to the Scottish economy so this is something worth protecting.

The EU have proposed that the Scottish textile industry (which would include the kilt making industry) might be afforded protection from cheap imports from other countries like China by adopting the origin marking scheme.   The scheme aims at ensuring that there is more transparency and information for the consumer.  The Scottish kilt would have an identity of its own and any other cheap imports would not be able to claim the same authenticity.

Westminster do not seem to be too bothered about either the proposal or indeed our kilt industry. According to Gareth Thomas of BERR (Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) the UK

“retains strong reservations about a proposal which has yet to be adopted for formal negotiation.

The UK Government has consulted widely and repeatedly on this proposal……. While the Scottish textiles industry is not alone in the UK in supporting the proposal… a clear majority….including the CBI Consumers Association and the British Retail Consortium are opposed to the proposal seeing no necessity for or added value in the proposal for business or consumers.”

Howie Nicholsby of 21st Century Kilts in the capital’s High Street told me that the definition of what a kilt is is very simple – there are three components:  it should be handsewn; made of pure wool and  made in Scotland. He feels strongly that handsewn kiltmaking in Scotland will die out if nothing is done to protect this indigenous industry against the cheap imports which fall apart after being worn a couple of times. He also feels very strongly that the customer should not be ripped off and he issues a guide to customers who might feel they want to shop around for something cheaper. The guide is called “Twenty Questions for your Kiltmaker” and is designed to assist the prospective buyer in spending their money wisely on an authentic Scottish kilt.

Hector Russell, Kiltmaker, told me that they are not just so worried about the implementation of the EU proposal in Scotland as their market is generally driven more by price than authenticity. Their kilts are described quite deliberately as “hand-tailored” rather than handsewn. This means that whilst they are made of wool and the bulk of the manufacture is hand processed the finishing touches might be done by machine. So in fact they might fall outwith any definition. They have found that it has become more difficult over the years to source products from within Scotland as weaving and mills have become rarer . Hector Russell understand and agree with the need for information to be more transparent to the consumer but do not think that the country of origin is as important to the consumer as the price. Christine Donaldson from Hector Russell told me that “Price is king” – and emphasized that this was particularly so at the moment when they are involved in all manner of sales initiatives to try and encourage trade at this point before Christmas.

The Scottish Tartans Authority are up in arms about the lack of interest in the origin marking scheme from the UK government. Brian Wilton there told me that he is surprised that the Scottish Government are not more supportive as it was only a couple of weeks ago that the bill to set up the Scottish Tartans Register was passed to be run under the auspices of the National Archives Scotland.  He thinks that the livelihood of the industry and the heritage are being ripped apart by the UK government and its non-involvement in this area.

The Scottish Tartans Authority’s website offers the following information :-
Are kilts hand sewn or machine sewn?
They can be either. Ideally they should be hand sewn but because of the labour involved (up to 16 hours or more sometimes) these turn out more expensive than machine stitched ones. But . . . a kilt is a potential heirloom so spend as much as you can afford on it.
Do kilts have to be made of a certain material?
Traditionally kilts have always been made of wool but they obviously can be made out of other materials such as cotton, linen or polyviscose mixtures. Some trendy kilts are even made out of denim, hessian or leather.

 The Scottish Parliament as recently as October backed measures to protect, promote and preserve tartan as one of Scotland’s most iconic and valuable assets.  The Scottish Government has been working with Jamie McGrigor MSP on a Members’ Bill to introduce a Scottish Register of Tartans.
After MSPs backed stage three of the Bill, Enterprise Minister Jim Mather said:



“Tartan is deeply woven into the cultural fabric of Scotland and is an internationally recognised symbol of our country.  We also know that the tartan industry makes a significant contribution to Scotland’s economy.  We have been working constructively with Jamie McGrigor MSP since last year and I am pleased that all our efforts have now come to fruition with the Bill receiving cross-party support.  It is only right that we take action to safeguard one of our most valuable assets for future generations by establishing a Scottish Register of Tartans.”

“The Register will make tartan more accessible than ever before. It means people across the world will be able very soon to use the Register as an on-line resource to research, design their own family tartan and have it woven in Scotland – the spiritual home of tartan.  I am particularly pleased that we will be able to launch the Tartan Register in time for 2009, Scotland’s Year of Homecoming.


Whilst he was EU Trade Commisioner, Peter Mandelson appeared to think it a great idea. In a letter to Alyn Smith MEP earlier this year he said that the proposal…”would serve the interest of traditional Scottish textile producers.” He went on to urge that Scottish and UK governments should discuss their proposed support of origin marking. However now that he has been elevated to the House of Lords he has in fact rejected the EU proposal in its current form.  Alyn Smith thinks that the “ermine robe has turned his head.”

Alistair Buchan Chairman of Lochcarron, a weaving company who supply most of the kiltmaking companies in Scotland with tartan disagrees that it is necessary to define what is meant by “kilt”.  He actually has no objection at all to the cheap imitations being sold by the likes of LIDL in the run up to St Andrews Day. He thinks that anything that gets people thinking about kilts and wearing them is a good thing.

However he does think that anyone who uses the description Scottish or Highland should be selling a product actually made in Scotland. Mr Buchan believes that the best way forward to protect our valuable Scottish industry is to adopt a PGI (Protected Geographical Status) approach.

This is used for example in relation to the Arbroath smokie  – the point is that the geographical involvement must occur in at least one of the stages of production. Mr Buchan said that whilst he is proposing to write to Lord Mandelson about his apparent U-turn he thinks it impossible to have one definition of a kilt but that it is feasible to protect the materials used in the manufacture by labelling them as “Scottish” or “Highland”.

So the kiltmakers should weave themselves together to try and decide what to do next to best protect their multi million pound industry and utilise the resources of the EU to do so………..


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